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05/24/2012 03:54 PM

The World from Berlin

Merkel Faces 'Herculean' Task on Green Energy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel held a summit Wednesday to review the lack of progress in the country's dramatic nuclear phaseout and shift to renewable energies. On the editorial pages, many commentators are critical of government policies that have caused electricity prices to soar.

As last year's Fukushima nuclear disaster began to unfold, German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded to the catastrophe by announcing nothing short of an energy revolution in Germany. By 2022, the chancellor said, the country would decommission all of its nuclear power plants, and by 2050, 80 percent of all energy in the country should come from renewable sources. It was a plan that heralded an era of offshore wind farms, solar panels and wind turbines across large parts of the country and pumped-storage hydroelectric plants that would ensure a constant flow of electricity even when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining.

One year after the bold announcement, precious little has happened -- save for painful price hikes that have hit consumers' pocketbooks and companies' bottom lines. Many offshore wind farms aren't connected to the grid yet, and the massive power masts needed to transport the energy haven't been built. To add to the problems, Merkel last week sacked her environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, the very man in charge of implementing the highly ambitious clean energy plans. It appears she was more displeased with his lack of progress on the difficult energy project than his embarrassing loss in a recent state election.

Seeking a turnaround of her stalled energy turnaround, Merkel on Wednesday convened a meeting with her new environment minister, Peter Altmaier of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, as well as the powerful governors of Germany's 16 states in order to push her plans forward.

"The energy turnaround is a major task, you could even say a Herculean one," Merkel said during the energy summit at the Chancellery. "We want success."

However, the summit offered little by way of concrete decisions other than an agreement to meet every six months in order to, in Merkel's words, "identify progress made and tasks that haven't been completed."

'No Concrete Agreements'

Merkel has said she will present new plans to move things forward ahead of a meeting of state governors on June 14.

Opposition parties, led by the Greens, are highly critical of Merkel's missteps on the path to a greener future. "There were no concrete agreements," Baden-Württemberg's Green Party governor, Winfried Kretschmann, said at a meeting later on Wednesday of the party's leaders. The far-left Left Party accused Merkel of being filled with "hot air."

The aspect of the energy policy that has drawn the greatest criticism, however, is the fact that it has been accompanied by higher electricity prices for companies and consumers alike. Energy prices have been rising steadily since the introduction of Merkel's policy, and Germany's largest steelmaker, ThyssenKrupp, even blamed the policies for the sale of one of its steel mills, which is to be closed. European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger has even warned: "High electricity prices have already initiated deindustrialization in Germany."

In German newspapers on Thursday, editorialists take a critical look at Merkel's clean-energy policies, with some warning that it could do serious harm to the core of Germany's economy, the so-called Mittelstand of small and medium-sized businesses and industrial firms.

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"Just over a year ago, the chancellor said that companies and consumers will have to be supplied with affordable electricity in the future, too. But that certainly hasn't happened. Owing in no small part to the fact that the 'energy turnaround' is driven by the state and not the markets, taxes and levies on electricity are rising considerably -- and today they represent greater revenues that automobile or tobacco taxes. That puts the people under pressure and threatens industry. EU Energy Commissioner Oettinger, who was handpicked by Merkel for the job, has warned of Germany's deindustrialization. One might want that as a goal, even though the British example is a bad one. But one cannot continue Germany's tradition of small and medium-sized manufacturers and major industries of production and manufacturing if the question is left open of where the affordable electricity that keeps all the assembly lines moving will come from."

"The pressure created by the shutdown of Germany's remaining eight nuclear power plants over the next nine years is immense and counterproductive -- because it will drive up electricity prices."

The tabloid Bild writes:

"The energy turnaround cannot be allowed to make electricity so expensive that factories are forced to close and people lose their jobs. The energy turnaround cannot become so expensive that the average family must pay €100 ($126) a month for electricity alone."

"That's why the state must stop driving up energy costs with its special taxes. That's why a stop must be put to soaring profits at energy utilities that come even as the people moan under the weight of rising energy costs."

Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"When it comes to Germany's energy revolution, even the opposition seems to think that the chancellor has supernatural powers. Angela Merkel, Social Democratic and Green politicians recently demanded, has to take charge of the country's drive toward renewable energy. Otherwise, they say, it won't work. If only it were that easy. One year after Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy, all hopes that a turn toward a future of renewables could be ordered from above have proven to be illusory. The project is the greatest current challenge facing the country -- and it lies in front of Germany's state and national governments like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without a picture to work from. And there always seems to be a piece missing."

"The problem, first and foremost, is a fundamental misunderstanding of German energy policy. Where Germans get their electricity -- whether from natural gas, coal, sun or wind -- is not the product of political decisions but of the market economy. Companies don't base their decision to build a power plant on some ambitious political project but on profitability. Whether solar panels continue to be installed is not purely a function of government subsidies but also of price. And the question of the power grid is big enough also depends on citizens, who also have a say; many people may find the energy revolution super in theory but don't want a power pylon in front of their living room window. Given such a situation, it doesn't matter how great the chancellor is."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Shortly after the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, the chancellor was praised for her radical change of course on energy. Now, one can observe how great the desperation at the slow pace of progress on the energy turnaround is. The dismissal of Environment Minister Röttgen is only one sign of that. Now, the new calls to muzzle the energy companies speak volumes."

"The more concrete the energy transition becomes, the larger the problems appear: faltering grids, near electrical blackouts, enormous costs, and the growing role of state interference in the market economy."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Democracy is a form of government characterized by patience, Baden-Württemberg Governor Winfried Kretschmann said Wednesday after the energy summit. He remains optimistic that the energy revolution will begin now. That seems to be the big result of the summit -- from now on, everyone wants to be nice to each other and tackle what Merkel calls a Herculean task together."

"Excuse me? A year after the proclamation of the energy revolution, the summit agrees on the starting signal? They can't be serious. … And when Merkel says that things need to be rethought because not a single power plant complex can produce in the long run, and that demand and green energy must be aligned, then there is only one thing to say: If this rethinking took an entire year, it's no wonder the energy revolution isn't going anywhere."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The meeting of the federal government and the state governors about the energy revolution did not produce much that is new, if one disregards the fact that Röttgen was no longer sitting at the table and the fact that, for the first time, action was taken based on the realization that the energy revolution is not something that can simply be implemented as part of the political routine. There will now be 'round tables' and semi-annual 'high-level' meetings which will coordinate a task which is apparently the responsibility of 'all levels' of government. And then there is the chancellor, who left no doubt on Wednesday that she is the one ultimately in control of the project."

"But the question of what the energy revolution really means is still hidden behind a technocratic fog full of buzzwords. The politicians keep coming up with new mantras for the old questions that still can't be answered. It remains to be seen how a 'capacity market' -- the buzzword of the day on Wednesday -- can be created in Germany and Europe that can balance the conflicting demands of new and old energy sources without a cost explosion. For now, the energy revolution appears to not be making progress. There are contradictions that are known to all, but there is no sword that can cut through the Gordian knot. Revolutionary plans already exist, but there are disputes over tiny steps."

-- Daryl Lindsey

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